The passing of Father William “Bix” Bichsel on Feb. 28, marks the end of an epoch. Tacoma has lost one of its most notable sons.
Bix was born in 1928 and raised in a large Catholic household by a railroad engineer and a mother who fed the homeless and unemployed during the Depression. He naturally took the side of the poor, homeless and oppressed, until his vision came to encompass the whole world.
I first learned of Bix after I moved West in 1988 to teach African-American, labor and civil rights history. I wondered where I could find others with these overriding concerns. Then I discovered Bix. He was on the evening news, arrested for challenging Reagan administration support for military juntas and their death squads in Central America; he’d done so by interrupting a speech of then Vice President George W.H. Bush.
I soon met this audacious Tacoma priest. He turned out to be a humble, self-deprecating man, often dressed in denim, without a clerical collar, always on the move. Instead of becoming tired and old, he traveled the country and the world witnessing for peace and human fellowship.
Arrested 46 times, he spent about 21/2 years in prison. Bix put his whole body on the line for a better world. Few people will say we can eliminate nuclear weapons and war, but Bix said we can and many of us came to believe him and dedicate ourselves to the task.
We need to talk about problems, but Bix asked us, in his unimposing, gentle way, to do something about them. At the G Street community on Tacoma’s Hilltop, less than a mile from where he was born, Bix helped create institutions of care and compassion that continue today. He strongly identified with Martin Luther King Jr., and he wove Native American beliefs into his liturgies.
As we held vigils during the week that Bix lay dying, an elderly African-American woman recalled, “Father Bichsel was the first white person I knew who stood up for black people.”
Bix was an intellectual, earning the Jesuit equivalent of a Ph.D. in theology and a master’s in psychology. He served in the church and for a time as dean of students at Gonzaga University. But his greatest gift was to know how to use his knowledge in the service of others, with humility and grace.
He was especially helpful when tragedy struck. When my parents and my wife’s mother all died within six months, I asked him what comfort could he offer?
“Be thankful for them,” he simply said.
I thought about it a lot, and it worked. Coming from him, it was comfort enough. He was a true friend, joking, appreciating life, and always speaking from the heart.
Father Bichsel’s legacy will no doubt live for many years to come. During Bix’s last two weeks, Lucas Dambergs and I interviewed him about his life. We invite others to help us record memories of this remarkable and historic figure. We say thank you, Bix.
Michael Honey is the Fred and Dorothy Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma. To record memories of Father Bichel, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.